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Concerts Music Festivals

The Evolution of Summerfest

June 19, 2013 by Allison

Music history

With a motto like “Smile On,” and a logo in the shape of a red smiley face, Summerfest encompasses the annual excitement that surrounds one of the year’s most fun-filled music festivals. Though it may seem like the folks behind Milwaukee’s annual extravaganza knew exactly what they wanted from the start, the 11-day event has actually come a long way since its launch way back in July 1968.

The concept of Summerfest was first derived from then-Mayor Henry W. Maier’s trips to Germany’s Oktoberfest, after which he plotted out a way to re-create the magic stateside. The very first Summerfest was not held at its current prime lakefront location; but rather, took place at 35 different locations around the downtown Milwaukee area. It also featured more than just music, as the event boasted other forms of entertainment such as an air show and film festival, with other bells and whistles designed to make it unique.

Though the first edition was mildly successful, the second one was held at nearly twice as many locations, but was not as well received and left officials scrambling to find a way to keep it running. A bank ultimately provided the funds and moved Summerfest on the lake in 1970, a location that had seen its share of action over the years. The festival attempted to expand later on in 1989 in the form of “Winterfest,” which was held throughout downtown Milwaukee during the winter months, but it only lasted until 1998 when it was canceled due to lack of income.

Today, the lakefront location is now aptly named the Henry W. Maier Festival Park, and has grown from a grass field into a full-fledged fairground, complete with permanent stages, bathrooms, and vendors. The Marcus Amphitheater was the biggest change made to the venue, and its addition in 1987 gave Summerfest the capability to hold big-time headlining acts with its 25,000-person capacity. In 1999, the Guinness Book of World Records certified Summerfest as the “World’s Largest Music Festival,” a title that still stands today.

Over the years, the festival has made itself famous by having the most decorated and talented artists grace the stage. The fest’s first headliner was Bob Hope in 1968, and he was soon followed by the likes of fellow legends such as The Doors, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and the Grateful Dead, all within the first 10 years.

The Summerfest 2013 lineup is not too shabby itself, featuring headliners like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Tim McGraw, fun., Jason Aldean, The Eagles, John Mayer, and Pitbull, among others. Additionally, be sure to check out the waterfront zip line, paddleboat water experience, and Parade and Spirit Day—all of which are new for 2013.

Despite all of the changes and upgrades over the years, Summerfest has done its best to keep one thing the same—the prices. Beer prices haven’t been raised since 2011, when they went up a mere 50 cents to $5 for a draft beer and $6.50 for a bottled beer. 

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